New video trailer for THE SECRET OF OUR SUCCESS by Joe Henrich

Henrich jacketThe premise of Survivor, in which 16 previously unacquainted humans were routinely abandoned in forbidding locations to brave the elements, was no doubt wildly popular because of the simple fact that we humans, on our own, are virtually helpless. We aren’t particularly adept at building shelter, fending off predatory animals, and the thought of having to procure a meal with nothing but our bare hands and our wits is enough to make many of us run for our nearest Whole Foods. How on earth have we managed to dominate the globe when we can’t survive in the wild? As Joseph Henrich points out, human groups are far less hopeless than lone individuals, and our collective brains have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have not only allowed us to inhabit diverse environments, but have actually shaped biology. Check out the trailer for his new book, The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating our Species, and Making Us Smarter.




Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

New Brain & Cognitive Science Catalog

We invite you to scroll through the 2016 Brain & Cognitive Science catalog below.

Phishing for PhoolsDon’t miss Phishing for Phools! Nobel Prize-winning economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller challenge the traditional idea that the free market is inherently benign and show us through numerous stories how sellers can manipulate and deceive us.



ThriveIn Thrive, Richard Layard and David M. Clark argue that the economic and social advantages of investing in modern psychological therapies more than make up for the cost, and that we cannot afford to ignore an issue that affects at least 20% of people in developed countries.



future of the brainThe Future of the Brain, edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman, is a collection of essays that explore the exciting advances that will allow us to understand the brain as we never have before.




Secret of our SuccessJoseph Henrich makes the case that our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to socially connect with each other and benefit from a collective intelligence in The Secret of Our Success.




For these and many more titles in cognitive science, see our catalog above! And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get 30% off on select titles through November 13, 2015.

Fall Sale

Finally, if you’ll be attending the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Chicago from October 17-21, visit us at booth 126. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using #SfN15!

Paul Krugman hosting free discussion at Cooper Union with authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketTonight, Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman will host a free public discussion at Cooper Union with Richard Layard & David M. Clark, co-authors of Thrive: How Better Mental Health Care Transforms Lives and Saves Money. Richard Layard discussed the book with Tom Keene on Bloomberg Surveillance here, and both authors answered some questions on mental health policy for the PUP blog here.

Mental illness is a leading cause of suffering in the modern world. In sheer numbers, it afflicts at least 20 percent of people in developed countries. It reduces life expectancy as much as smoking does, accounts for nearly half of all disability claims, is behind half of all worker sick days, and affects educational achievement and income. There are effective tools for alleviating mental illness, but most sufferers remain untreated or undertreated. What should be done to change this? In Thrive, Richard Layard and David Clark argue for fresh policy approaches to how we think about and deal with mental illness, and they explore effective solutions to its miseries and injustices.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords. He is the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which has been translated into twenty languages.

David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Paul Krugman is an author and economist who teaches at Princeton, the London School of Economics and elsewhere. He won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics. He is also an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times.

September 29, 2015 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
The Great Hall
Foundation Building
7 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003

Please RSVP here.

A Q&A with Richard Layard and David Clark, authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketHow can mental illness—an affliction that affects at least 20 percent of people in developed countries, reduces life expectancy, and wrecks havoc on educational potential—remain chronically under-treated? The answer is simple: mental and physical pain are not viewed equally, and even in a relatively progressive culture, the former remains profoundly stigmatized. As a result, most who suffer from mental health issues suffer in silence, or receive inadequate support. Can this change? Richard Layard and David Clark say it can.

In Thrive, Layard and Clark look at the practical politics of increasing access to mental health care, arguing that the therapies that exist—and work—are available at little to no cost. Recently, both took the time to answer some questions about the book, and the transformative power of mental health care.

What is the message of your book?

Depression and anxiety disorders are the biggest single cause of misery in Western societies. They also cause enormous damage to the economy. But they are curable, in most cases, by modern evidence-based psychological therapy. The shocking thing is that very few of those who need it get any help and fewer still get help based on evidence. In England such help is now becoming available to many of millions who need it. As we show, this help involves no net cost to society. It’s a no-brainer.

What is the scale of the problem?

Surveys of households in rich countries show that around 1 in 6 adults have depression or anxiety disorders severe enough to cause major distress and impair the person’s functioning. Only a quarter of these people are in any form of treatment, most usually medication. This is shocking. For surveys show that mental illness is the biggest single reason why people feel dissatisfied with their lives – accounting for more of the misery in our societies than either poverty or unemployment do.

What is its economic cost?

Mental illness accounts for nearly a half of all absenteeism from work and for nearly a half of all those who do not work because of disability. This imposes huge costs on employers and taxpayers. Mental illness also increases the use of physical healthcare. People with a given physical illness of a given severity use 50% more physical healthcare if they are also mentally ill. This is a huge cost to those who fund healthcare.

Does psychological therapy help?

In the last 40 years considerable progress has been made in developing effective psychological therapies. The most studied therapy is CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a broad heading for therapies which focus on directly influencing thoughts and behaviours – in order to affect the quality of human experience. In hundreds of randomised controlled trials CBT has been shown to produce recovery rates of over 50% for depression and anxiety disorders. For anxiety, recovery is generally sustained; for depression, the risk of relapse is greatly reduced.

The range of therapies which have been shown to work has been surveyed internationally by the Cochrane Collaboration and in England by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Besides CBT, NICE also recommend for all depressions Interpersonal Therapy (IPT) and, for mild to moderate depression, Brief Psychodynamic Therapy, Couples Therapy and Counselling. Modern psychological therapies have also been shown to be effective in a wide range of other mental health conditions.

Do these therapies really cost nothing?

Yes. If delivered to a representative group of patients they pay for themselves twice over. First, they pay in reduced invalidity benefits and lost taxes due to invalidity. We know this from a series of controlled trials. Second, they pay for themselves in reduced costs of physical healthcare. Again we know this from controlled trials. It is so partly because the typical cost of an evidence-based course of treatment is only about $2,000.

How can these therapies become more widely available?

Two things are needed. First, there have to be enough people trained to deliver these therapies. This is the responsibility of universities and colleges, including of course supervised on-the-job training. Second, there have to be effective frameworks where trained people can be employed. The evidence is that recovery rates are higher where people are employed in teams where they can get supervision, in-service training, and clear career progression.

Those who fund healthcare have in the USA and UK the legal obligation to provide parity of esteem for mental and physical healthcare, and this requires that they are willing to fund high quality evidence-based therapies that are made easily available and provide the necessary duration of treatment, based on evidence. Insurers never fund half a hip replacement and they should not fund only half a proper course of psychological therapy.

What can be learnt from the English experience?

The English National Health Service has in recent years developed a totally new service to deliver evidence-based psychological therapies. (It’s called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)). This service has, over six years, trained altogether 6,000 therapists and is now treating nearly half a million people a year, with a recovery rate of 46% and rising. The prestigious journal Nature has called it “world-beating”.

How can we prevent mental illness in the first place?

First we must of course treat it as soon as it appears. This is often in childhood, where the same evidence-based treatments for depression and anxiety disorders apply as in adulthood. For children’s behaviour problems, parent training and family therapy are recommended.

But we must also reduce the overall prevalence of mental illness. This requires major changes throughout society. First, more support and education for parents. Second, schools which give more priority to the well-being of children. Third, employers who treat their workers with appreciation and encouragement and not as income-maximising machines. Fourth, more positively-oriented media. And finally, a new citizens’ culture giving more priority to compassion, both as an emotion and as a spring for action.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords.  David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Read chapter one here.

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard

Lowrie jacket5-8 Kierkegaard_TheSeducersDiaryIntroversion has been having a moment of late, and today happens to be the birthday of one of the world’s most famous—and brilliant—introverts. To quote the (excellent) copy for A Short Life of Kierkegaard by Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard was “a small, insignificant-looking intellectual with absurdly long legs, a veritable Hans Christian Andersen caricature of a man.” In life, he often hid behind pseudonyms, and yet, he remains one of the most important thinkers of modern times. Read about Kierkegaard’s turbulent life in this classic biography (literary duel? Check. Tragic love affair? Check.) or sample The Seducer’s Diary, which John Updike called, “An intricate curiosity—a feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success, a wound masked as a boast.”

Happy Birthday, Søren Kierkegaard.

Read Chapter 1 of The Seducer’s Diary here.

Read the Introduction to A Short Life of Kierkegaard here.

George Akerlof and Robert Shiller pose with their new book jacket

Nobel Prize winners Robert Shiller and George Akerlof got the chance to pose with the phenomenal cover for their forthcoming book, Phishing for Phools, the lead title on our Fall 2015 list (stay tuned for the posting of our new seasonal catalog!)  The drawing on the cover is an original by New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren, and the jacket design is by our own Jason Alejandro. You can catch George talking about the book, which is a fascinating look at the central role of manipulation in economics, at this lecture at Duke University.

Akerloff and Shiller


Christopher Bail on anti-Muslim sentiment

In this clip from the documentary, sociologist and author Christopher Bail discusses whether the sea change in American public opinion about Islam over the past few years may have contributed to the recent murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His recent book, Terrified, employs computer analytics techniques to show how anti-Muslim organizations have gained visibility in the public sphere. In this clip, Bail speaks with a close friend of one of the victims. You can watch the entire documentary here.

Last month, Bail spoke with Paul Rosenberg at Salon about his innovative new methodology for studying how fear is fostered in the broader cultural landscape. He was interviewed about the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shootings in the Guardian earlier this year.

Madness in Civilization

Madness in Civilization is a stunningly illustrated new cultural history of mental disturbance from antiquity to the present time.  Written by Andrew Scull, professor of sociology at University of California, San Diego and preeminent historian of psychiatry, the book’s mesmerizing subject matter ranges from exorcisms to Victorian asylums, from pharmacology to the introduction of psychiatry into popular culture. The Telegraph called it “ambitious and gruesome”, and the book has received wonderful write-ups in The Literary Review and The Financial Times. Scull has been blogging for Psychology Today as well, where he shares insights on his fascinating and frightening work. Check out chapter 1 here, and a slide show of some of the book’s most compelling images:

Types of Insanity
The Tranquilizer, 1811
Maniac in a strait-jacket, in a French asylum.
Battle Creek Sanitarium
Battle Creek Sanitarium
The first stage of General Faradization
The second stage of General Faradization
The third stage of General Faradization
Attitudes passionelles: extase (1878)
Advert for the psychiatric drug Thorazine
Depression Advertisement
Murder of Thomas Becket
Franz Joseph Gall examining the head of a pretty young girl
Hieronymus Bosch's The Cure of the Folly
Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal
No Sex Please! (We're on antidepressants)

'Types of Insanity,' the frontispiece to John Charles Bucknill and Daniel Hack Tucke's A Manual of Psychological Medicine (1858), one of the first widely used textbooks on the diagnosis and treatment of insanity. Wellcome Library, London.

The Tranquilizer, 1811. Its inventor Benjamin Rush boasted that: "Its effects have been truly delightful to me." His patients' reactions are not recorded. Courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland

The French alienist J.-E.D. Equirol included many drawings of insane patients in the throes of their madness, such as this one, in his treatise Des Maladies mentales, published in 1938. Wellcome Library, London.

Photography at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, one of many therapies on offer there. 271

A postcard of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, for affluent and nervous patients. By 1933 it had been forced into receivership, a causality of the Great Depression. The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

The erotic overtones of Charcot’s pictures of his hysterical patients at the Salpêtrière are nowhere more obvious than here. Harvey Cushing/John Jay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, New Haven.

An early advertisement for the virtues of Thorazine, touting its value in curbing the agitated husband's inclination to beat his wife. Wellcome Library, London.

Depressed? We have the solution! An advertisement for 'mother's little helper' - a pill for the housewife trapped in a prison of domesticity. Harvey Cushing/John Jay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, New Haven.

A vivid portrayal of the murder of Thomas Becket, from a mid-thirteenth century codex. The saint's blood was thought to cure insanity, blindness, leprosy, and deafness, not to mention a host of other aliments. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Franz Joseph Gall examines the head of an attractive young woman, while three gentlemen wait their turns to have their own characters read, in a satirical image published in 1825. Wellcome Library, London.

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Cure of the Folly: The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (c. 1494). A doctor, possibly a quack, uses a scalpel to remove the supposed cause of madness from the head of the patient. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal, his hair grown long and his nails like claws. This striking image of the biblical story of the Babylonian king’s madness is a detail from a manuscript painted by an unknown artist in Regensburg, Germany. Paul J. Getty Museum, Los Angeles (Ms. 33, fol. 215v)

Types of Insanity thumbnail
The Tranquilizer, 1811 thumbnail
Maniac in a strait-jacket, in a French asylum. thumbnail
Battle Creek Sanitarium thumbnail
Battle Creek Sanitarium thumbnail
The first stage of General Faradization thumbnail
The second stage of General Faradization thumbnail
The third stage of General Faradization thumbnail
Attitudes passionelles: extase (1878) thumbnail
Advert for the psychiatric drug Thorazine thumbnail
Depression Advertisement thumbnail
Murder of Thomas Becket thumbnail
Franz Joseph Gall examining the head of a pretty young girl thumbnail
Hieronymus Bosch's The Cure of the Folly thumbnail
Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal thumbnail
No Sex Please! (We're on antidepressants) thumbnail

Spotlight on…Letter-Writers

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

Italo Calvino:
Letters, 1941-1985

For the final post in this series, we turn to the raw materials of biography with two volumes of collected letters. Private letters often give a very different picture from public writings – less guarded, more spontaneous and immediate. They can shed light on the development of ideas and concepts over time, revealing the struggle so often obscured by the perfection of the finished work. These letters are a vital primary source for biographers. It seems certain that the rise of email and decline of letter-writing will profoundly affect the work of future biographers. Will email prove as durable as paper? Will the sheer volume of electronic correspondence defeat even the most dedicated researchers? It may be decades before the answers to these questions are clear. For now, we are still seeing significant collections of letters published, allowing readers to make their own first-hand acquaintance with Carl Jung and Italo Calvino.

Analytical Psychology in Exile collects the correspondence between Jung and one of his most brilliant students, Erich Neumann. The letters span nearly three decades, offering a fascinating insight into the maturing of Jung’s theories as he shares them with, and defends them against, the younger Neumann. Jung has been accused of sympathy with the Nazi regime in Germany, and of anti-semitism, yet here we see him in dialogue with a Zionist Jew who was forced to flee Germany for Tel Aviv in 1934. Inevitably, given the impending catastrophe, these letters touch on complex and controversial issues such as the psychology of fascism and anti-semitism, and the crushing experience of exile. Neumann lived to see the founding of the state of Israel and died there in 1960; although nearly thirty years his senior, Jung outlived him by a year.

While Jung passed the Second World War in the comparative security of Switzerland, Italo Calvino experienced first-hand the dangers of life in Fascist Italy. In Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, that experience is most profoundly seen in an absence, the lack of any correspondence from his years in hiding as a member of the Italian resistance. Although his letters rarely refer to the war, his time fighting with the resistance resulted in a deep philosophical and personal commitment to communism. We see his disillusion and resignation from the Communist Party following the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and his excitement at the fresh hope offered by the événements of 1968 in Paris. The course of his writing, from the autobiographical realism of The Path to the Nest of Spiders to the dazzling metafiction of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, perhaps reflects his withdrawal from political life. Nonetheless, Calvino remained an acute critic and his letters are filled with sharp assessments of post-war Italy’s vibrant cultural life.

Christopher Bail talks to Salon about “Terrified”

Christopher Bail, author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, recently spoke with Paul Rosenberg for a feature in Salon on how anti-Muslim sentiment is fostered by the broader cultural landscape, and the innovative new methodology he has used to study that process. Paul Rosenberg at Salon writes:

It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time.  Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.

How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina.  The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.

Read the full interview with Christopher Bail that follows here.

Terrified, by Christopher Bail

Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban on 2014 elections

weedenElections are almost always a polarizing event in this country, but Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban, authors of The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, explain why it’s more complex than just liberals and conservatives going twelve rounds in the ring. Two days ago, The New York Times published Weeden and Kurzban’s opinion piece, Election 2014: Your Very Predictable Vote, and it has generated some internet buzz; over 500 comments have already been submitted.

The gist? Americans vote out of self-interest. The proof? “Unemployed people are more than twice as likely as people working full time to want unemployment benefits increased. African-Americans are by far the most likely proponents of affirmative action and government help for African-Americans. Rich white men are especially likely to oppose income redistribution.” Furthermore, but  unrelated to economic motivations, Weeden and Kurzban note, “People who want to have sex but don’t at the moment want babies are especially likely to support policies that ensure access to birth control and abortion. Immigrants favor generous immigration policies. Lesbians and gay men are far more likely to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation. Those who aren’t Christian are far more likely to oppose discrimination based on religion.”

This all sounds like common sense, yet, there are many political scientists focused on the influence “parents and peers, schools and universities, political parties and leaders, and…’values'” have on American voters, and self-interest is overlooked. Weeden and Kurzban argue, “the most straightforward explanation, demographics, is also the most persuasive.” The authors go on to theorize as to what the United States might look like if policy was determined by polling residents:

“There would be greater spending on the poor, health care, Social Security and education. Immigration would be reduced. School prayer would be allowed. Anti-American speech by Muslims would be restricted. Abortion would be legal in cases of rape and fetal deformity, but illegal if the abortion was motivated by not wanting more children, by being poor, or by being single.”

So why doesn’t the United States look like this? Weeden and Kurzban have an answer for that too!

“Negotiations at the federal level result in more conservative economic policies, and more liberal social policies. That’s because they involve one set of highly educated, wealthy representatives negotiating with another, and the policies that result reflect their own core interests.”

You can read the article in its entirety, here and don’t forget to  pick up a copy of The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind in time for the 2016 presidential election!